In the series Dialectics of the Sexes 16
In The Restless Years – one of the volumes of Konstantin Paustovsky’s autobiography, a book beyond praise – you stumble over passage after passage with breathtaking observations, sometimes on details, sometimes on characters, then again ruminations of a je ne sais quoi. It just does not stop.
Of a sad beauty is the description of his wintery search for cigarette butts, along with his friend and former sailor Zuzenko.
Outside the town’s periphery that ‘skipper’s sharp eye’ helped pauper-writer Konstantin to find cigarette-leftovers, dispersed and scattered as they were between or on the side of the rails on which trains brought passengers into the station. Some time before their arrival they threw their buts out of the window.
The two friends separated the tobacco residue from their filters, then moistened the mixture. Once dried and turned into fags, this blend did not taste bitter any longer.
‘Gradually I made useful observations regarding both stubs and smokers. Sometimes we found stubs with traces of lipstick. The impression of female lips always left a faint network of tiny furrows. Zuzenko used to say that the pattern made by these little grooves was different for every woman, just like thumb prints. According to the skipper, the colour of lipstick corresponded to the woman’s character.’
These wise words I read a day before I visited the house that my mother left behind after her move into an old folk’s home. I took away some books and pictures. Until after her death the house needs to wait for new occupants; troubles in the family necessitate the employment of a testamentary executor. But to leave those drawings and books to mould and rot away, as had happened previously to a few precious watercolours – I won’t have it.
Is it strange, then, that while taking these pictures in their nicotine stained frames from their wall I heard Paustovsky’s lines singing in my head, even louder once I had opened a severely yellowed envelope with inside it photograph’s of Japanese copulations in which my anthropologist father was seriously interested – out of scientific motives or otherwise?
On the back of one of these takes, above the stamp of The National Museum of Ethnology Leyden, it read in a handwriting which perhaps is not my father’s: ‘Book Sekko’ or ‘Book Sokko’, complete with exclamation mark. And also: ‘Collection Kaempfer’. On the web I found bits and pieces on that Kaempfer collection, but nowhere was such ‘adult material’ mentioned or to be seen. I did not succeed in uncovering the identity of either ‘Sokko’ or ‘Sekko’.
Between her slightly older thighs this slim, unmistakably young man takes a woman a tergo, his gaze intensely focused on her arse which seems to be an almost asteroid version of the lipstick imprint of a mouth on which, during their cold journey through icy Russia, Paustovsky and Zuzenko had their conversation – looking for cigarette butts.
Could it be that in these delicate anal furrows he is fathoming the character of his mistress, just like our two Russians did with that lipstick shade of a mouth? Or, to pinpoint her disposition more precisely, should he also take into consideration her voice responding to their act? Say, ultimate synaesthesia.
This much is certain, Paustovsky puts it into words:
Touch beauty with a careless hand, and it’ll disappear for ever.
Sierksma, Haarlem 6.11/2016